Before I get into the reviews of the latest two episodes of House of Cards season 2, a reminder that my thoughts on episodes 1-3 can be found here; 4-6 here, 9-10 here and 11-13 here; while you can also follow Political Footballs on Twitter @politicalftball and like us on Facebook here. Spoilers for chapters 7 and 8 of season two are coming up, so if you have not watched those yet do not read on, otherwise join me on a flight to Kansas City…
This installment starts with the Democratic leadership of the Executive and Legislative branches of government watching an attack ad that the Republicans have made questioning their ability to lead, noting the trade war with China, and the failings of Congress, pointing out that Francis Underwood was taken from that badly functioning (according to the commercial) body to be made Vice President. The ad is paid for by Friends of a Better America, which sounds about as far removed from the real world Americans for Prosperity – the right-wing SuperPAC with ties to the Koch Brothers – as the People’s Front of Judea is from the Judean People’s Front. Having heard the criticisms, the President and Vice President think about better ways they can lead, while Congresswoman Sharp discusses ways to make sure Congress is more effective…wait, no they decide to find out where the money has come from to finance the cost of running the ad and how they can get funding to launch a response. Politics, eh?
When everyone else has left the room, President Walker turns on Underwood and starts blaming him for all the things that have gone wrong, most notably the negotiations with the Chinese, which leads to Francis angrily telling him that if he needs to continue using him as a punching bag to carry on, but it would be better if he was allowed to do his job. The fraught nature of this discussion suggests that the relationship between the pair is dissolving, but the Vice President wins himself back into his boss’ good graces by sending him an actual punching bag with a note advising him that this one does not come with a loud mouth attached. It is just as well the pair are getting on better, since President Walker and his wife Tricia are to be dinner guests at the Underwoods that night, with the hosts bringing in Freddy to make his delicious ribs for the meal. Claire’s previous efforts to ensure that the First Lady would be paranoid about Christina working too closely with the President came to fruition during the Walkers’ car ride to the meal, as Tricia tells her husband that she suspects his assistant is attracted to him and points out, as evidence, that she has a history of such behavior. The President is annoyed that his wife even raised such an issue and during dinner he is hostile, so when Francis takes him to see the miniature Civil War model he has been working on, Claire gets back into Tricia’s ear, suggesting the Christina fight is just a symptom and recommends the First Couple should consider seeing someone who could provide some therapy.
While things are working out in the Underwoods’ campaign to undermine the relationship between the President and his wife, there is a potential dangerous threat revealed when we see Seth Grayson meeting with Remy Danton – we learn that the lobbyist has hired him to find some dirt on the Underwoods. However, Grayson claims to have found nothing on the abortion story and he later has a one-on-one with the Vice President, where he tells Underwood that Remy had employed him but promises to stay loyal, since he is more interested in having access to power than simply making more money. In a meeting about the sexual assault bill that Claire is trying to get introduced into Congress – though Jackie Sharp appears keen to bury it at least until after the midterms – Grayson clashes with Mrs. Underwood’s existing communications director, Connor, who he then has Remy arrange a job for in the private sector so that he leaves on his own terms and will keep the secrets he has learned in his time around the Vice President and his wife.
Doug Stamper is the man charged with discovering who is funding the Republican ad buy and to do this, he goes out to spend some time at a casino close to Kansas City owned by Daniel Langin, a Native American who had previously donated solely to the Democratic party. Francis has a suspicion that, given they are both in the state of Missouri, Lanagin is nothing more than a front man for Raymond Tusk’s money – who had previously claimed that he stays out of the political money game. Doug finds a waitress who reminds him of Rachel – who he is now clearly completely enamored with – sleeps with her and discovers that there have been 38 flights to KC in the last decade with planes owned by Tusk’s Chinese business associate, Xander Feng. Without even needing to be told by Underwood, Stamper buys a ticket to fly to Beijing to confront Feng in person about this, though the first question he is asked upon his arrival in China is whether or not he has a check for $5,000 to make up for the Macallan he has knocked to the floor the last time the pair met. Doug is made a guest in Feng’s home, though he rejects the two women who are sent to his room in the middle of the night, presumably because they do not remind him of Rachel, but the Chinese businessman tells Stamper that he needs the Port Jefferson bridge project to be brought back to the table, otherwise some of his allies will become enemies in Beijing.
At the end of the episode, Lanagin comes to visit Underwood as the Vice President attempts to get the funding flowing back in the right direction, but when he offers only influence in the executive branch, rather than money, the Native American tells him that he does not trust a white man, especially one that works for the federal government. The last straw for Francis is when Dan informs him that he will “tell you when I give a fuck about your respect”, which leads the VP to have the secret service escort him from the house. He then trashed his miniature Civil War table. Luckily Claire is on hand to convince her husband that a better way to get out his frustration than destroying his own handiwork was to go for a run, while the ghosts of Peter Russo and Zoe Barnes were wishing that Mrs. Underwood had been on hand to calm Francis down the nights he took each of their lives.
Finally, Remy and Jackie slept together again, but the lobbyist tells the Democratic Whip that he is looking for more than just a casual series of one-night stands; and the writing is on the wall for the awesomeness of Freddy’s BBQ. Not only is the guy now cooking for the President of the United States, a reporter’s story about the joint means there are now lines round the block waiting to get in. An investor is offering him a chance to franchise the place into a series of restaurants and sell his barbecue sauce by the bottle. The quaintness of this secret ribs place that the Vice President has been frequenting for 20 years has gone and I just hope that Freddy comes out of it well, since he has been a great character on the show (though my love of him stems from his role on The Wire as Carcetti’s right-hand man, Norman Wilson).
With this episode coming just over halfway through the second season of House of Cards, the action was very much on different characters trying to initiate their plays against their enemies, with all the different pieces being moved into place. The grandmaster of this political chess match is of course the Vice President, Francis Underwood, who decides to deal with the switch of allegiance from Daniel Lanagin by meeting with Chief Whitehall, with the agenda being the federal recognition of the Ugaya tribe. The real motivation for Frank wanting the Bureau of Indian Affairs to take that step is so that they can then break ground on a new casino on their reservation in Missouri, taking business away from the Adohi tribe’s own gambling establishment. His lack of empathy towards the plight of the Native Americans is revealed by the fact he has a portrait of Andrew Jackson in his office, the President who forced the removal of so many tribes from their land and “relocated” them – via the Trail of Tears, which saw thousands of people die en route – to what is now the state of Oklahoma.
The Vice President’s plan backfires, however, as when he goes to Missouri – under the pretense of providing support to a fellow Democrat ahead of the midterm elections – he makes a detour to visit Lanagin and finds Tusk already at the table with the casino owner. Any leverage Underwood had hoped to gain from recognizing the Ugaya is quickly extinguished, since Dan reveals that he had already given them their true desire: that they be accepted back into his tribe. Raymond offers to restore the flow of money back to the Democrats, but only on the condition that he repairs his relationship with the President, something that Francis has no interest in doing. Underwood gets frustrated and will not even eat the steak Lanagin has cooked him, pointing out that he has shown no respect to the office he hold. However, the Native American tells him “you are not my Vice President, you are on sovereign land” which infuriates Frank so much he tosses the meat on his plate into a swimming pool, gleefully watching Dan’s dog predictably jumping straight in after it.
As ever with the Vice President, he cannot be fighting on just one front alone – although a student of history, he clearly has not learnt any lessons from the downfall of both Hitler and Napoleon, who failed because they took on Russia, as well as the Allied forces and Britain respectively. During this episode, alongside combating Tusk he is also pushing to get the President to return to supporting the Port Jefferson bridge project, a necessity if Underwood is to stop the flow of money from Feng going to the Republican super PACs ahead of the midterm elections. Nevertheless, his path is blocked by Walker’s Chief of Staff, Linda – leading to Francis exasperatedly asking the audience why things can never be easy – who believes that the Vice President has an unusually high level of interest in the issue and that the President should stick to his original decision not go ahead with the project. Needing a win, Underwood tells Garrett something of the truth – that he has continued to use back-channels to negotiate with the Chinese, that he is trying to protect the President (that bit does not seem to be completely believable) and that the only way to stop the huge funding for the GOP ad campaigns is to approve the bridge (leaving out the option of repairing the relationship between Walker and Tusk). Ultimately, Frank wins the debate and gets the President to sign off on the project, giving Linda no choice but to tender her resignation, which Underwood convinces his boss to accept, while also praising the Chief of Staff with some feint praise. When Linda comes to see the Vice President before her departure, he tells us that he has never thought more highly of her than now: she lost, but at least she fought.
The biggest problem for Francis is that behind the scenes, Raymond Tusk is utilizing his almost unlimited resources to set Remy Danton out on a mission to find some dirt on the Underwoods. The lobbyist’s first stop is to see Evelyn – who was fired by Claire from the Clean Water Initiative on the same day she had been made to let several other people go from the organization – and from their conversation Remy gets a lead on Adam Galloway, the photographer with whom Mrs. Underwood had an affair in season one. After a visit to an artist who works with Galloway, Danton is able to secure a photo of Claire in bed sleeping, which was taken during her stay at the photographer’s studio, and he then releases it to the press. It was not the best episode for Mrs. Underwood, as the Private who had provided further evidence of General McGinnis sexually assaulting women, was wrought with nerves over the prospect of testifying to Congress and opts not to do it, weakening the chances of Claire’s bill making it to the floor. One of her schemes does come to fruition however, as the First Lady becomes so frustrated with the President – especially when he will not give her time to discuss the sexual assault legislation – that she reaches out to Claire for the name of the Reverend who provided the Underwoods with counseling. The First Couple setup a meeting to visit a sick friend at his house, with the therapist waiting there to talk to them, but the suggestion was that this is some kind of setup by the Underwood Empire and this supposedly secret session will come back to haunt the President.
Doug is clearly smitten with Rachel, but in a manner that befits such a ruthless man who would do anything for the Vice President, so his signs of being interested involve secretly entering her apartment when she is not there and sniffing her bed sheets. Unfortunately for Stamper, he seems to have little chance of landing Rachel, since she and her friend from the Fellowship Church – whose name, I have to be honest, I do not know, but she used to do meth and heroin and talked to the former call-girl on the bus…that woman – are getting much closer and inevitably make out before the end of the episode. Poor Doug, at least he had the pleasure of telling Xander Feng that now the bridge project was approved, he had to nix the refinery deal with Raymond Tusk – hopefully that cheered him up some. Finally in the other, slightly less-creepy, relationship story in this season, Jackie tells Remy that she does want to see him and for him to stay the night, but they will need a clear delineation between work and their private lives. Their pairing is clearly a perfect match and neither of them will ever try to use the other for perfect gain and the boundaries will never be blurred…right?